When Eating Disorders Don’t Look As Expected
What image comes to your mind when you think about someone with an eating disorder? There’s a good chance you picture a young, Caucasian teenage girl with anorexia, who may be painfully thin. Or, perhaps, you picture someone with bulimia as a heavier person, who is ordering through the drive through lane with a car already filled with food wrappers.
Contrary to common beliefs, eating disorders can look very different from these stereotypes, and can affect women, men, children and adults, and people of all sizes and ethnicities.
Understanding Eating Disorders
Eating disorders are sometimes mistakenly perceived as a choice or as a bid for attention. To the contrary, eating disorders are a serious but treatable mental illness that manifests itself in a person’s relationship with food, body weight and shape. When untreated, eating disorders can result in fatal illnesses.
According to the National Eating Disorders Association, twenty million women and ten million men in America will have eating disorders at some point in their lives.
One of them is Adam Rippon, U.S. Olympic figure skater. Rippon says he was so intent on losing weight so he could do some of the most complex jumps, he limited food—during training—to three pieces of bread (with a pat of I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter) and multiple cups of coffee a day. It wasn’t just dieting, but a self-imposed strictness that was related to his body image. But as a twenty-something male, Rippon doesn’t fit the image of a person with an eating disorder.
Neither does Gloria Lucas, who developed bulimia when she was 17. She was hesitant to seek help for her eating disorder, thinking she wouldn’t be taken seriously since she was Xicana, of Mexican Indigenous descent, and not a stereotypical Caucasian that is often portrayed as someone with an eating disorder.
When a person doesn’t fit the typical description of someone with an eating disorder, their illness can be overlooked or dismissed. That’s why it is important to better understand eating disorders and encourage anyone with signs of them to seek medical help.
Most Common Types of Eating Disorders
- Anorexia Nervosa—or just anorexia, is characterized by abnormally low body weight. People with anorexia fear gaining weight and may have a distorted idea of how they look. To control their weight, they may restrict the amount of food they eat, or, once they eat, try to get rid of the food by vomiting or taking laxatives. They may also exercise excessively. Signs of anorexia include extreme weight loss or thinness, fatigue, thinning and breaking hair, or frequently feeling cold.
- Bulimia nervosa—or just bulimia, is an illness where people may secretly binge by eating food and then try to get rid of the food either through vomiting, using laxatives or with excessive exercise. Although people with bulimia may start the cycle by eating large amounts of food, some people purge after eating smaller meals. Like people with anorexia, those with bulimia are preoccupied with body shape and weight, fear gaining weight and don’t feel they can control their eating. Signs of bulimia include always worrying about weight and body composition, not wanting to eat in public, going to the bathroom during or right after meals and eating large quantities of food.
- Binge eating disorder is one of the newest recognized eating disorders, characterized by repeatedly eating large amounts of food at least an average of once a week for at least three months. The eating often occurs very quickly and past the point of being satisfied. Most of us will overeat occasionally, but a person with a binge eating disorder may eat rapidly and to the point of being uncomfortably full. They may feel unable to control what they are eating and may feel ashamed or depressed afterward. Someone with a binge eating disorder may try to hide their behavior, but signs include eating large quantities of food and eating alone or in secret.
Diagnosis and Treatment
People with eating disorders can recover fully, with the right medical care and supervision. Doctors can diagnose an eating disorder through a psychological evaluation and perhaps a physical exam that might indicate any health related consequences of the eating disorder.
Treatment usually includes psychotherapy and medication.
By understanding that an eating disorder isn’t really about food, but is a disease that is comprised of biological, psychological and environmental factors, and, like many other diseases, can affect anyone. With this knowledge, we can be more alert for any symptoms that arise and arrange for medical treatment as early as possible.
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